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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Planes, Cruise Ships, and Germs

Boost your chances of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps.
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Flu Season Coming continued...

Also, the air within planes is usually very dry, with 10%-20% humidity, according to the CDC. When your mucous membranes dry out as a result, you're more susceptible to infection.

So what can you do to stay one step ahead of cold and flu germs while flying? Experts offered these tips.

1. Wash hands frequently. To cut down on viruses that hitch a ride on your hands, "frequent hand washing or using hand gels is very important," Schaffner says. An alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer that contains 62% ethanol does the best job at killing germs. After you wash with soap and warm water, you can use some gel to get your hands even cleaner. Avoid hand contact with your face.

2. Stay hydrated. "Keep up your fluids," Schaffner says. Avoid or limit caffeine and alcohol, because both can cause dehydration. If you want to indulge in an alcoholic drink or a cup of java, make sure you drink plenty of water before and during the flight. You can also keep your eyes and nasal passages moist with saline eye drops and saline nasal spray.

3. Ask a flight attendant for new seating if a passenger nearby is coughing, sneezing or appears ill. "Proximity matters," says Schaffner, who once developed a cold within a couple of days after sitting by a sneezing, sniffling plane passenger. "Being very close to the source -- in the same row or two seats in front or back -- those are the folks who are at greatest risk," he says. "After that, the risk tails off very remarkably."

The reason? Large aircraft are designed so that air doesn't blow from the front to the rear of the cabin, but instead, air circulates "segmentally," from ceiling to floor. "You're really in your own kind of air zone, with about two rows in front and two in back," Schaffner says.

The longer you're seated near an ill passenger, the greater your risk of exposure, Schaffner adds. "The longer you're together, the more apt you are to talk with each other, perhaps even touch the same things, and the longer you share the same airspace."

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